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IOWA CITY — For the first time since the Board of Regents in 2016 scolded the state’s public universities for their regular — and at times significant — annual room and board rate hikes, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa are proposing residence system rate increases for next year reaching 3 percent.
Regents next week will consider approving that 3 percent hike for the “standard” double room and meal plan at both ISU and the UI, along with a 2 percent bump for the standard plan at the University of Northern Iowa — its first increase since 2019.
The proposed rate increases come after a string of semesters were upended by COVID-19, which forced the universities to move classes online for a period — sending students home in March 2020 and then keeping many from returning to the residence halls the subsequent academic year.
The pandemic’s hit to the universities’ self-supported housing and dining operations has amounted to tens of millions in lost revenue from weak student occupancy, new costs for COVID-19 precautions and a need to remain competitive for employees in the residence halls at a time when workers are hard to come by.
“The pandemic’s impact on the residence systems continued into the current fiscal year including in part, labor shortages, continued mitigation efforts and canceled or postponed events,” according to a February regents report spelling out the pandemic losses and need to increase rates.
The 2022-23 proposed rate bumps for the standard housing and dining plans translate to increases of:
- $323 at the UI, from $10,956 to $11,279;
- $279 at ISU, from $9,088 to $9,358;
- $183 at UNI, from $9,160 to $9,343.
Those higher rates — when considered along with escalating tuition and fee costs, which regents have scheduled to keep growing — exacerbate the snowballing price of higher education in Iowa, which this year reached $25,534 for a UI in-state resident undergraduate, including tuition and fees, room and board and other expenses.
Rate hike history
The new rates, if approved, will represent a 35 percent increase from a decade ago at UI; a 21 percent increase for ISU; and a 23 percent increase for UNI. When compared to 2000, room and board rates have increased:
- 156 percent at the UI, from $4,398;
- 111 percent at ISU, from $4,432;
- 125 percent at UNI, from $4,149.
For years after 2000, annual room and board rate increases trended a lot steeper — like in 2002, when increases reached nearly 13 percent at the UI, 8 percent at ISU and 6 percent at UNI. Rate increases across the campuses in subsequent years included 8 percent at UI in 2003, 14 percent at ISU that same year, and 7 percent at UNI in 2004. Then, in 2007 and 2008, UNI proposed back-to-back rate increase of 9 percent and 8.3 percent.
Although annual increases dipped after that to between 2 and 5 percent, the board in 2016 — on the heels of an internally-commissioned efficiency study — raised concerns about how those increases were contributing to the rising cost of education.
Former Regent Larry McKibben, specifically, said his constituents were coming to him about the increases — and he pressed university housing executives to find other ways to manage their budgets.
“What are you doing to reduce these costs not increase them?” McKibben said then. “Because what I'm hearing from that standpoint is the costs are going up too rapidly and higher than the outside environment.”
Residence system heads the following year reported cost-saving measures allowing them to minimize their rate-bump requests to half a percent at the UI and 2 percent at ISU and UNI. Rate increases hovered around 2 percent until the pandemic hit, compelling UNI to freeze rates and ISU to lower rates in an effort to retain interest in their residence hall.
Board spokesman Josh Lehman told The Gazette on Thursday that campus’ housing and dining operations “routinely collaborate on common issues, looking for ways to be more efficient and provide the best service to our students.”
“As part of this collaboration, they have established joint contracts for common goods and services across the system including food, room furniture, kitchen items, repair and maintenance items, office supplies, convenience store inventory, cooking oil and recycling,” he said.
Variety of options
Although the new proposed rates are for the most common double room and standard meal plan, each campus offers a variety of housing options — allowing students to choose room and dining options that are both less and more expensive.
The most expensive residence hall room option at the UI is a single with air-conditioning and a bathroom — costing $12,573 — and the least expensive is a four-person room, at $5,443. ISU’s steepest room rate is a single suite at $7,185, with its cheapest costing $4,170 for a double. UNI’s priciest rooms cost more than $8,000 — for studio or apartment living — with its standard double rooms costing the least at $4,793.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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